Calling it a major milestone, the Obama administration on Monday approved what investors say will be the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant and one that more than doubles all of U.S. solar output and can power at least 300,000 homes. The project in the Mojave Desert near Blythe, Calif., is the sixth solar venture authorized on federal lands within the last month. All are in desert areas.
“The Blythe Solar Power Project is a major milestone in our nation’s renewable energy economy and shows that the United States intends to compete and lead in the technologies of the future,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in announcing the approval. Construction on the $6 billion plant is expected to start by the end of 2010, with production starting in 2013. Developer Solar Millennium, a company based in Germany, says the plant will generate 1,066 construction jobs and 295 permanent jobs.
The project had run into opposition by some environmentalists due to wildlife concerns. The Interior Department stated that Solar Millennium will be required to “provide funding for more than 8,000 acres of desert tortoise, western burrowing owl, bighorn sheep and Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat to mitigate the project’s impacts.”
The plant will use “parabolic trough” system whereby parabolic mirrors focus the sun’s energy onto collector tubes. Fluid in the tubes is then heated and sent to a boiler, which sends live steam to a turbine to produce electricity.
Solar plants that begin construction before Dec. 31 qualify for a Treasury Department grant totaling 30 percent of a project’s cost, as part of last year’s economic stimulus package. Approval of a seventh project on federal lands “” also in California “” is expected in the next few weeks. All could start transmitting electricity by the end of 2011 or early 2012.
[The photo caption, via MSNBC, is "Workers assemble a pilot solar collector known as a parabolic trough during testing for the proposed solar power plant near Blythe, Calif."]
Last winter’s record wallops of heavy snow had many in the mid-Atlantic wondering what happened to global warming. If the planet were warming as scientists say it is, shouldn’t we be receiving less snow? (Not necessarily, I reported at the time). Now comes word that, paradoxically, cooler winters with heavier snowfall in regions such as the mid-Atlantic may be connected to rapid warming and sea ice loss in the Arctic. Arctic climate change, which studies have concluded is likely due in part to human activities, could favor cooler and snowier winters in places far removed from the far north.
Of course, this would not hold true in every winter, since multiple natural climate factors, such as El Nino in the Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) in the Atlantic, compete for influence over the region’s weather, in addition to longer-term climate change. But a new “Arctic Report Card” released last week by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and prepared by an international team of researchers contains curious insights into how Arctic climate change, which may at first seem disconnected from events here at home, may be influencing weather patterns in the northern mid-latitudes.
As Nick Sundt reports on the WWF climate blog, the Report Card discusses the aptly named “Warm Arctic-Cold Continents” pattern that existed last winter, and ties it in part to sea ice loss from a warming climate.
In the atmosphere section of the lengthy report, the authors write: “There is evidence that the effect of higher air temperatures in the lower Arctic atmosphere in fall is contributing to changes in the atmospheric circulation in both the Arctic and northern mid-latitudes. Winter 2009-2010 showed a new connectivity between mid-latitude extreme cold and snowy weather events and changes in the wind patterns of the Arctic; the so-called Warm Arctic-Cold Continents pattern.”
South Africa is to unveil plans this week for what it claims will be the world’s biggest solar power plant – a radical step in a coal-dependent country where one in six people still lacks electricity. The project, expected to cost up to 200bn rand (£18.42bn), would aim by the end of its first decade to achieve an annual output of five gigawatts (GW) of electricity – currently one-tenth of South Africa’s energy needs.
Giant mirrors and solar panels would be spread across the Northern Cape province, which the government says is among the sunniest 3% of regions in the world with minimal cloud or rain. The government hopes the solar park will help reduce carbon emissions from Africa’s biggest economy, which is still more than 90% dependent on coal-fired power stations. In April, the World Bank came in for sharp criticism from environmentalists for approving a $3.75bn (£2.37bn) loan to build one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in the country.
Energy is already a high priority in South Africa where, at the end of racial apartheid, less than 40% of households had electricity. Over 16 years the governing African National Congress has undertaken a huge national expansion, with a recent survey showing that 83% are now connected, but power outages are still not uncommon in both townships and middle-class suburbs.
An estimated 200 foreign and domestic investors will meet this week in Upington, Northern Cape, with a view to funding the hugely ambitious solar project. A master plan will be set out by the US engineering and construction group Fluor. This follows a viability study by the Clinton Climate Initiative, which described South Africa’s “solar resource” as among the best in the world.
Negotiators may be able to agree on ways to adapt to climate change, transfer technologies and slow deforestation when they meet next month in Cancun, Mexico, a senior European Union official said today.
“What is within reach is a number of agreements that would allow concrete actions to start,” Laurence Graff, head of international relations unit at the European Commission’s climate department, told a seminar today in Brussels. Envoys may agree on frameworks to help mainly developing countries cope with the effects of global warming and put systems in place to begin measuring and slowing emissions of greenhouse gases.
The 27-nation EU has stated intentions to be a leader in the fight against global warming. It is on schedule to meet its 2020 goal of cutting greenhouse gases by 20 percent from 1990 levels and has said it would be willing to move to 30 percent if other countries follow suit. It stopped short of setting a more ambitious target at global climate talks in Copenhagen last year, citing a lack of comparable effort by the U.S. and China.
The United Nations conference in Cancun starts Nov. 29. It is unlikely to produce a deal on mitigation targets, Graff said. “We need to be ambitious but realistic and manage expectations so that we can lay the ground for action and provide a good milestone for an international regime that would be finalized later,” he said.
Just yesterday I covered the groundbreaking of the largest northeastern U.S. solar farm, which is being built in the Garden State, New Jersey. Now, I’ve got even more great solar news coming out of New Jersey. The State Legislature recently approved A1084, which would require that solar panels be incorporated into the design and construction of all new public school facilities in New Jersey.
A1084 “is currently before the Assembly Appropriations Committee, which is waiting on technical review by the Legislative Council to insure that such legislation does not violate previous state statutes,” Matt Montagne of CalFinder Solar writes. Sponsored by Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, (D-Mercer), Peter J. Barnes, III (D-Middlesex), and Albert Coutinho (D-Camden), the bill places the onus to insure the solar law before approving school construction on the New Jersey Commissioner of Education”¦. Gusciora says the mandate meshes nicely with $12.5 billion funded for schools in 2000 as a bond issue, of which $7.9 billion has been spent.
While this would be a great boost for clean energy jobs in New Jersey, the state with the second-most installed solar energy caacity (only trailing California), you will always find your opponents. Some state Republicans are, of course, less than enthusiastic about the bill, and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association supports the general idea of the bill but would like to see one significant change. They would prefer an “incentive-based approach rather than a mandate.”
Although BP’s problems in the Gulf of Mexico figured prominently in the July Anglo-American summit, its international problems do not end there. Russia seems ready to rescue BP. It is welcoming BP’s former CEO, Tony Hayward, onto the Board of TNK-BP, allowing BP to explore the Arctic waters off Russia’s coast, and refrained from criticizing BP during the whole time that its well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing black gold into the Gulf and the US Gulf coast.
While this is a far cry from the rapacious tactics Moscow has previously pursued against Mr. Hayward and BP, repeatedly squeezing BP projects and trying to seize control of them, Moscow’s motives for riding to BP’s rescue are easily explainable. BP remains vulnerable to Russian pressure. As Andrew Kramer of the New York Times points out, BP’s Russian assets make up 840,000 barrels per day of oil, almost one-third of BP’s global output and more than the 665,000 barrels per day it pumps in the United States. TNK also netted BP $1.7 Billion in 2009 for its share of dividends and allows BP to claim vast reserves of oil on its books.
BP has also been on occasion very helpful to Russia, for example it agreed in 2007 to facilitate Gazprom’s efforts to make foreign acquisitions well before other majors and governments acquiesced in doing so. In return Gazprom was supposed to help BP in its Russia business, buying back a major Siberian gas field that was in danger of having its license revoked due to the usual predatory tactics of the Russian government. In return for helping Gazprom obtain a foreign asset, Gazprom would then sell back 25 percent of the field to BP.
Within 15 years, the sun could supply 10 percent of the nation’s power needs, according to research by the nonprofit group Climate Action. The White House will be part of any such trend, as President Obama announced the return of solar panels to heat water and supply some electricity for the first family. The president’s move has homeowners wondering whether their roofs should be soaking up rays, too. So how do you go solar?
Sites sponsored by the Department of Energy and several solar panel manufacturers offer calculators to give you a sense of whether solar is worth pursuing for your home. You enter your Zip code and electrical needs – either in terms of kilowatt-hours from your utility bill or how much you spend per month on power. The program knows how much sun your area enjoys and which tax incentives are available. It will predict how much money you’d save over 25 years, after which most solar panel warranties expire. (The panels will probably last longer than that, though.)
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (www.nabcep.org) has a database of trained installers, and that’s a good place to start. Choosing an installer is probably your most important decision. “The installer is the one who’s going to design your system and actually drill holes in your house,” says John Supp of Solar Depot, a wholesaler that supplies local installers.
Have several companies survey your home. They should do a free consultation, and good installers will walk you through the technology and the installation process, and explain what government incentives are available. You should feel confident in the company’s stability. The warranties on workmanship usually last 10 years, and you want them to be around if something goes wrong.
Energy Recovery has won a contract to supply its Pressure Exchanger desalination systems to a large plant being erected by Befesa in Qingdao, China. The plant will generate 100,000 cubic centimeters, or 26.4 million gallons, of water a day and serve over 500,000 consumers through reverse osmosis. It is the seventh time the two companies have worked together on a plant.
Reverse osmosis desalination generally is energy-intensive: Water needs to get highly pressurized before a reverse osmosis membrane can extract the salt and other impurities. Energy Recovery reduces the amount of energy required in desalination by harnessing the waste stream from the reverse osmosis process (only about 60 percent of water is purified; the remaining 40 percent just becomes saltier seawater) to pre-pressurize incoming sea water.
The wastewater effectively collides with incoming seawater contained in ceramic chambers: nearly 98 percent of the pressure in the waste stream gets transferred to the incoming sea water in the same way that the energy from a cue ball might get transferred to an eight ball. That’s a picture of the inside of one of the company’s pressure exchangers.
Desalinated sea water is a last resort source of water. As in energy, larger, cheaper gains could be made through efficiency and conservation. Unfortunately, water is also highly subsidized so getting farmers and consumers to care about their bills can be challenging. Municipal water agencies are also chronically sclerotic: utilities look like loosey-goosey Web 2.0 outfits in comparison. Nonetheless, demand for desalination technologies continues to grow. Marin County will vote on two competing desalination measures in November.
Solar power may meet 4.2 percent of U.S. electricity supplies by 2020 as lower costs make investments more attractive, according to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Investments in solar energy reaching $100 billion during the next decade would boost capacity to 44,000 megawatts, up from 1,400 megawatts today, the London-based research and analysis company said today in a statement.
A drop in costs for both solar thermal technology and solar photovoltaic panels to less than $200 a megawatt-hour has helped increase returns on investments. Commercial rooftop solar systems generate returns of 8 percent to 14 percent in some states and more in states with strong incentives such as Hawaii, Texas, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Commercial solar systems will make up about half of total installations, with the remainder split evenly between residential rooftops and large utility-scale plants. About 2.4 percent of households will have a solar system by 2020, the group said.
Researchers at MIT have revealed exactly how a molecule called fulvalene diruthenium, which was discovered in 1996, works to store and release heat on demand. This understanding, reported in a paper published on Oct. 20 in the journal Angewandte Chemie, should make it possible to find similar chemicals based on more abundant, less expensive materials than ruthenium, and this could form the basis of a rechargeable battery to store heat rather than electricity.
The molecule undergoes a structural transformation when it absorbs sunlight, putting it into a higher-energy state where it can remain stable indefinitely. Then, triggered by a small addition of heat or a catalyst, it snaps back to its original shape, releasing heat in the process. But the team found that the process is a bit more complicated than that.
“It turns out there’s an intermediate step that plays a major role,” said Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg Associate Professor of Power Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. In this intermediate step, the molecule forms a semi-stable configuration partway between the two previously known states. “That was unexpected,” he said. The two-step process helps explain why the molecule is so stable, why the process is easily reversible and also why substituting other elements for ruthenium has not worked so far.